From the earliest years of Spanish settlement in South America, Africans played a key role in shaping the history of the continent — from slave revolts in the 1500s to African military leaders in the war of independence against Spanish colonial rule in the 1700s.
But despite the fact that the majority of Venezuelans define themselves as morena(o) — or brown, to reflect a mix of black, indigenous and Spanish blood, Venezuelans have historically been reluctant to acknowledge the continued African presence in their country.
“If you talk to many Venezuelans today, they tell you the same speech: ‘We’re all mestizo. We’re all the same people. Why do we have to have special programs for African people?’” says Venezuelan Deputy Consul General Omar Sierra.
“That mentality creates invisibility of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous people. If we are all equal, how can you explain that in all African communities, all the social indicators are at the bottom of the ladder?”
Speaking during the annual meeting of the Boston Pan African Forum, Sierra gave a history of Afro-Venezuelans and outlined the efforts of the governments of the late President Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro to recognize the contributions of Africans to Venezuela’s history and culture and remove barriers of discrimination that have kept blacks living in second-class status.
Africans were first brought to present-day Venezuela as slaves in 1528 to work in copper mines there. In subsequent years, African slaves were forced to work in the agricultural sector, fueling the South American colony’s economy, which depended on the export of cacao and sugar.
From the beginning, Africans who ran away from slavery formed independent Cimarron communities in Venezuela, where African music and customs are still practiced. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, during the Bolivarian revolution against Spanish colonialism, African men and women served as military leaders, winning decisive battles against Spanish forces.
In exchange for military support from the Haitian government, Venezuelan revolutionary leader Simon de Bolivar agreed to end slavery in the colony. Slavery was phased out in the country by 1863.
But in the 1930s, the Venezuelan government began official policies aimed at whitening the country, banning the immigration of Africans to the country and incentivizing European immigration with promises of free land.
Sierra said the anti-African tide turned in 1998, when the newly-elected Chavez became the first Venezuelan president to openly acknowledge his African and indigenous ancestral roots.
Beginning in 1999, with the Chavez government’s controversial re-writing of the Venezuelan constitution, Chavez ushered in a series of reforms aimed at redressing the Afro-Venezuelan community’s history of dispossession, according to Sierra. The reforms included government expropriation of fallow land from wealthy landowners for redistribution to Afro-Venezuelan communities.
The Chavez administration also signed on to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from the World Conference on Racism, a United Nations initiative aimed at ending racist international policies.
The Chavez government also began re-writing history text books used in the Venezuelan schools to include the histories of Africans and of indigenous people.
“They called genocide ‘genocide’,” Sierra said. “They documented slavery. They taught who the Cimarrons were.”
In 2005, the Chavez administration began celebrating Afro-
Venezuelan Day on May 10th, to commemorate the date in 1795 when Afro-Venezuelan military leader Jose Leonardo Chirino won a decisive military victory against the Spanish.
The Chavez government also commissioned statues commemorating other Afro-Venezuelan military leaders who led slave revolts and fought in the war of independence and created a National Council for the Development of Afro-Venezuelan Communities, charged with helping preserve the Cimarron-descended communities where African cultural customs are still practiced.
Sierra said cultural change is still slow to come to Venezuela, noting that blacks are still underrepresented in the white-dominated corporate media.
“Venezuela is known for three things: soap operas, oil and beauty queens,” he said. “But you never see black people in those areas.”
Sierra’s presentation to the Pan African Forum last week, came days before anti-government activist Leonaldo Lopez received an alumni achievement award from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he graduated in 1996. Lopez was arrested in February by Venezuelan authorities for his leadership role in the university student protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
After serving as vice president under Chavez, Maduro was elected in 2013 by a slim 1.5 percent margin with the support of poor Venezuelans, who benefitted from an improved standard of living under Chavez.
The protests began in February after university students, complaining of crime and inflation, took to the streets and seized some government offices. During the protests, 37 people were killed, 550 were injured and more than 2,000 were detained by police, according to figures released by Amnesty International.
The Amnesty International report cited allegations that Venezuelan security forces used live ammunition on protesters and tortured prisoners during the protests. The report also alleged that anti-government forces committed human rights abuses and called on both sides to negotiate an end to the violence.
Sierra did not address allegations of government abuse, but noted that most Afro-Venezuelans did not participate in the demonstrations.
“It was mostly in the light-skinned, upper class neighborhoods,” he said. “The corporate media portrays this like it’s a national movement. With these protests, you have to follow the money. You have the rich people protesting and the poor people living their lives.”